Tuesday 11 August 2020

In response to Premier Andrew’s declaration of a state of
disaster in Victoria, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, legal and human
rights organisations are calling for strong safeguards to ensure that police
powers are exercised fairly and proportionately during the public health
crisis.

The declaration of a state of disaster has granted
significant powers directly to the Minister for Police to direct and coordinate
a range of activities considered “necessary or desirable for responding to the
disaster”. It gives the Minister for Police wide-reaching powers to regulate
government activities and resources, as well as the power to suspend any law
that would inhibit the response to the disaster. 

This comes on top of the earlier broadening of police powers
in response to the declaration of an emergency to enforce previous public
health directions.

Monique Hurley, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre:  

 

“Increased powers cannot be a free pass for heavy handed or
discriminatory policing. The Andrews Government must guarantee that these new,
wide reaching police powers will be properly and independently scrutinised and
make sure there is accountability for any misuse. We don’t want increased
police powers to become the new normal – the powers must end as soon as the
pandemic does.”

A Parliamentary Inquiry into the Victorian Government’s
response to COVID-19 has shown that Victoria’s three most disadvantaged
communities have been disproportionately impacted by police enforcement
measures, receiving 10 percent of COVID-19 fines. This is in contrast to the
state’s three most advantaged local government areas that received just two per
cent of total infringements. This inequality raises serious concerns about
whether all communities are being policed fairly and equally, or if there has
been differential treatment.

Nerita Waight, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service:

 

“Police must responsibly exercise
their expansive powers, acknowledging that around the world, policing the
pandemic through fines and arrests has disproportionately impacted on
marginalised communities, including Aboriginal people. Police should prioritise
providing public health messaging and supporting people to comply with the
current restrictions. Arresting people will not achieve positive outcomes for
the Victorian community, and such an approach would be at odds with expert
advice that we need to curb admissions to detention to prevent further
outbreaks of COVID-19 in detention and in the community.

 

“Abuses of power must be prevented through a government
commitment to transparency (including making publicly available disaggregated
data on stops, fines and arrests) and accountability for any discriminatory
policing practices, to be complemented by robust oversight by independent
bodies and organisations.”

Community Legal Centres assisting people who have been
issued with fines related to COVID-19, even though they are eligible for an
exemption, are concerned that there is currently not effective oversight of the
use of police powers.

Karen Fletcher, Managing Lawyer Public Interest Law at Fitzroy Legal
Service:

 

“At Fitzroy Legal Service, we have clients who have
complied with the rules, clearly fit an

exemption, get fined and are not able to get a fair review.
The review process is not working even though Victoria Police promised all
fines would be fairly reviewed. People shouldn’t have to go to court to
challenge unfair fines. It’s all very well to say “you can challenge it in
court”, but a lot of our clients are really struggling just to get through the
day. If they take it to court they risk a criminal conviction and even bigger
fines. There needs to be a better and fairer fines review system.” 

Concerns have also been raised about the treatment of
children and young people by police during the pandemic, with many issued with
fines that they have no capacity to pay. 

Ariel Couchman, CEO of the Young Peoples’ Legal Rights Centre:

 

“Among those who have been issued
huge fines are children escaping family violence, children from refugee
backgrounds and children suffering mental health issues. The current Victorian
public health response is punishing children who are already experiencing
disadvantage. Victoria Police should be keeping children safe by giving them
information and a mask if they don’t have one. Fining children instead of
educating them only adds stress to families doing it tough in a pandemic. It
also puts children at risk of becoming caught up in a criminal legal system for
behaviour that, a few months ago, wouldn’t have been criminal at

all.”

Increased police powers should also come with extra oversight
by a properly resourced, independent watchdog, like the Independent Broad-based
Anti-corruption Commission, to ensure the powers are properly reviewed and that
there is accountability if police overstep the line. 

Anthony Kelly, CEO of Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre:

 

“Policing and coercive responses can result in stigma,
fear, and a loss of trust in authorities and undermine preventative health
responses. During the HIV/AIDS epidemic police practices such as stops, fines,
arrests and harassment increased HIV/AIDS transmission rates in communities
most at risk. It is vital we don’t repeat these mistakes in Victoria in 2020.”

The Andrews Government must also continue to engage in a
widespread and accessible public education campaign, with increased efforts to
provide information to all communities in multiple formats, particularly on the
new rules, what is expected of people and the consequences for failing to act
in accordance with the new rules.

Damian Stock, CEO of Inner Melbourne Community Legal:

“The Government learnt from the public housing lockdown
that it can have confidence in the capability and civic responsibility of the
communities it is working with. It can choose to continue to support and
resource these communities to keep people safe, rather than adopt an
overbearing enforcement approach.”

Read the Human Rights Law Centre’s explainer setting out
concerns with the increase in police
powers in response to the COVID-19 state of disaster
here.

If people have experienced or witnessed problematic
policing related to COVID-19, they can report it to: covidpolicing.org.au.  

If people have been treated unfairly by police, or have
received a COVID-19 fine, they can contact Fitzroy Legal Service on 0434 136
501 for free legal advice. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can
contact VALS on 1800 064 865.

Resources for people affected by COVID-19 are also
available on the Justice Connect website here. 

 

Media contact:

Michelle Bennett, Communications Director, Human Rights Law
Centre, 0419 100 519